Orthotics, also called braces, support limbs by controlling movement. Control and support are necessary when injury or congenital defects hinder the natural movement and shape of the limbs. In the case of ankle- or foot-related problems, an AFO brace, or ankle-foot orthotic brace, is used.
The term "AFO brace" is a catchall term that applies to any external orthopedic equipment that limits the movement of the ankle joint and supports part of the foot, all of the foot and part of the ankle or all of the ankle. A wide variation in styles and supports exist within the broad ankle-foot orthotics category. Different shaping, straps, padding and construction differentiate the different types of braces.
The main differentiation between types of AFO braces is whether or not they are hinged. Solid construction braces are used to improve walking and subtly shape the foot against injury and deformity. Solid AFO brace styles are completely molded and provide a limited range of motion throughout the ankle. Hinged AFO braces have a hinge that connects the ankle piece to the foot piece and are more suited to foot shaping needs and for individuals who need to build strength by moving the ankle in a natural up-and-down motion.
A spiral AFO brace allows limited motion in all directions, not just up and down. These braces are typically of the solid construction style and use as little covering to support the foot and ankle as possible. For people with certain tactile or range-of-motion needs, spiral AFO braces are often the brace of choice.
AFO braces are available off-the-rack and custom made. Off-the-rack models are made from a standard mold to fit a variety of shapes and bodies. They can be customized using padding to fit the shape of the foot and have straps individually placed to provide the most support. Custom-made AFO braces are molded specifically to a person’s body.
Choosing an AFO brace is a lengthy process. In order to meet specific needs, a patient should consult a medical professional to determine which areas of the ankle and foot need the most support and what range of motion, if any, would best suit specific needs. After consulting with a doctor, a patient must meet with an orthopedic specialist or custom brace maker. An orthotics professional can best determine the size and shape of the needed orthotic.